The $475 million being spent for a campaign to encourage Americans to be vaccinated is being paid for by pandemic money meant for doctors and hospitals, Republicans charged Wednesday.
In a scene likely to be repeated often in a GOP House next year, House Energy and Commerce ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., chastised the administration for the switch.
“We are extremely concerned that, after the Biden administration stonewalled Congress for months about the remaining Provider Relief Fund dollars, it just announced $475 million of it will be used for a vaccine campaign,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “As Democrats have already spent more than a billion dollars on vaccine confidence activity, with no reporting on the success of its outcomes, we believe continuing these efforts is not the best use of these funds.”
The GOP statement provided no proof that the money was coming from the federal Provider Relief Fund, and the White House would not respond to questions about the source of the funds. A source with knowledge of the expenditures confirmed that the money will come from the relief fund.
It’s the latest in a series of incidents that have angered Republicans concerned about how COVID-19 relief dollars are being spent. White House officials have rebuffed reporter questions about those expenditures as well.
The White House on Tuesday announced a six-week public education initiative that included $350 million for community health centers and $125 million for organizations serving the elderly and disabled, but it did not disclose where the money would come from.
Neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor its Health Resources and Services Administration answered questions from CQ Roll Call about how much money in total is being spent on the campaign, how much money is left in the provider relief fund or how much money is left from the $10 billion the department shifted from other funds in June.
“HHS was forced to reprioritize resources due to a lack of funding from Congress in order to meet the critical and urgent need to increase vaccination levels ahead of a potential winter COVID surge,” an HHS spokesperson said. “The amount of money HHS repurposed is limited.”
Yet National Press Secretary for Public Health Ilse Zuniga sent details to reporters and links to new public service advertisements earlier in the day.
“Let me know if you’re interested in covering this and would like more information. Thank you!” she wrote in an email.
The American Hospital Association said it supported the administration’s goals, but pointed to the twin surges of flu and RSV as evidence of the need for additional industry aid.
“The AHA supports the Administration’s efforts on COVID boosters and vaccines,” Senior Vice President for Federal Relations Lisa Kidder Hrobsky said in a statement. “However, hospitals and health systems are still struggling with COVID patients on a daily basis, as well as surging numbers of RSV and flu patients, and continued workforce pressures and other challenges and need additional relief and support to care for their communities and patients.”
The administration is requesting nearly $10 billion more to fight the virus in a year-end spending bill, but Republicans still seem unlikely to get on board.
The department’s decision to repurpose the $10 billion in June tanked a bipartisan deal to appropriate additional funds after Republicans accused the administration of being misleading.
This past spring, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki offered to make copies of a binder full of COVID-19 spending documents for reporters — but when a STAT reporter asked for a copy, the White House refused. The reporter was only allowed to look at select reports, giving her an hour to go through 400 pages without taking photos.
On Tuesday, current White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had to quell a revolt from reporters during National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci’s last expected press briefing, when she refused to let him answer shouted questions about what actions he has taken to investigate COVID-19’s origins.
The friction sets the stage for Republican oversight investigations when they retake the House in January. Republican leaders like Rodgers, House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member James R. Comer, R-Ky., and House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, have pledged to dive further into the administration’s COVID-19 spending and policies, in addition to the pandemic’s origins.